“I am an emotional creature. Things do not come to me as intellectual theories or hard-pressed ideas. They pulse through my organs and legs and burn up my ears.”
Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues, called for a day of action to protest the global problem of violence against women and One Billion Rising was born. The statistics regarding this international issue are grim: rape, incest, beatings, burnings, battery. Rape is used as a weapon of war and a weapon for controlling and punishing women and girls. One in three women will experience violence of a sexual nature in her lifetime. I am one of those three. This is personal.
The method of action for One Billion Rising was dance, an activity that is both dangerous and joyous. OBR commemorated the 15th anniversary of V-Day, Ensler’s poetic political action group through which Vagina Monologue performances are produced for the purposes of raising awareness. For OBR, women from across the globe were invited to share their dancing in groups and in public to bring attention to themselves—another dangerous act for women. Debbie Allen created a simple but powerful choreography for Tena Clark’s song “Break the Chain.” Video instructions and music were available online and local women began gathering to learn it. Here in Boulder Creek, Amber Walker, local Jazzercise instructor, decided to create an event with the women and children of San Lorenzo Valley.
Back in the mid Eighties, when I first encountered Jazzercise, I use to joke that “Jazzercise is where dancers go to retire.” My dancing partner of the time, Lisa Roffel Leiber, took up the franchise in Hartford shortly after we retired our modern dance company. I retired into Jazzercise myself, as a student, and for only a short while—my modern dance years were hellish on my hips and I needed time to heal. I picked it up again years later in South Deerfield, MA, and again about 16 months ago here in Boulder Creek, CA, having retired, again, from my formal dance training.
Jazzercise satisfies my need to exercise via dancing. It offers just enough mental challenge to keep me interested and just the right kind of music to keep me inspired. The instructors are the heart of every class. They tend to have very upbeat, extroverted personalities (which is why I never became one being the very opposite) and they make it a pleasure to be there. They encourage us in our shared muscular misery and keep us on message (most of the time). And they promote a sense of community. BC Jazzercise began about 25 years ago and many of these women began have been dancing together ever since. They have married, birthed children, and lost loved ones, sharing in those life events by attending Jazzercise. If you want to know about life in BC, join the class and meet the women—they’re all there.
Creating community is important to our instructors—Emily, Amber, Hallie, Erin, Chelsie, and Tina (I think I got them all)—and they make deliberate efforts to promote communality. They and the students join together outside of class time to prepare for or celebrate holiday and civic events. For the Christmas season, we gather for a private party at a local restaurant. For Halloween, they teach en masse dressed in thematic costumes—The Divas, Peter Pan characters—and give out little prizes to everyone else who wears a costume to class. On July 4th, a group always dances in the BC parade. Personal birthdays can be celebrated with special sets upon request. Last year, for my 60th I requested an all Motown-Funk-Big Band set—it was a blast. They even celebrate one special birthday set for a beloved former member who died of cancer. Such is their connection to and affection for one another.
For all these reasons and more, Amber decided to lead a One Billion Rising event for the women of San Lorenzo Valley. “Why should I drive up to San Francisco to celebrate when my community is right here!” she exclaimed. And what a showing we made on V-Day.
Arriving at the BC Rec Hall 25 minutes early, I secured a spot near the front by dropping my coat on the floor—most of us has our favorite spot or at least quadrant of the floor, and for some reason I work better when I’m standing in the right front quadrant. Others dropped shoes or bags to hold their spots while we danced about greeting one another with excitement. Many of us were sporting our official OBR tee-shirts and I loved seeing how we girls personalized them by cutting off sleeves, creating different necklines, generally slicing and dicing the shirts to create unique garments. As the room filled with women, children, teens, and even a few brave men, Amber announced the plan: we would begin with the Break the Chains dance, spend the next hour dancing Jazzercise routines to songs about female empowerment, then finish with yet another performance of Break the Chain. This was by our request: we figured that after all that rehearsal, we should get to perform it more than once.
Amber started the music with its lyrical overture. We improvised this, calling out the names of women we were dancing for, remembering or invoking. Then a chant breaks in: Walk, dance, rise; walk, dance, rise. We march in place, an army of women dancing in cadence: walk, dance, rise. Already, the power of our intentions began to raise the energy in the room and drive our dancing to righteous heights.
we danced: DO YOU SEE ME NOW? I’VE COME OUT OF HIDING? NO MORE SECRET FEARS. NO MORE ENDLESS TEARS.
“You’ve never owned me
Don’t even know me
I’m not invisible,
I’m simply wonderful”*
we danced: DO YOU UNDERSTAND NOW THAT YOU VIOLATED A HOLY WOMAN? DO YOU THINK YOUR GOD WILL FORGET? DID YOU THINK I WOULD FORGET?
“This is my body, my body’s holy
No more excuses, no more abuses
We are mothers, we are teachers,
We are beautiful, beautiful creatures”
we danced: DO YOU SEE HOW YOUR BRUISES MADE ME STRONG AND HOW MY DANCE MAKES ME STRONGER? I AM AN EMOTIONAL CREATURE! WATCH ME ROAR!
“I dance cause I love
Dance cause I dream
Dance cause I’ve had enough
Dance to stop the screams
Dance to break the rules
Dance to stop the pain
Dance to turn it upside down
Its time to break the chain”
Oh, yes. The fire of dance pulsed through our organs and legs; our powers filled the hall to the rafters and beyond. Together we danced to turn the world upside down. Together we danced to raise all women. It was exhilarating and liberating. We proceeded, then, with high-energy for the rest of the class. And we stayed there right through our second performance of Break the Chain. It was ritual theater: transforming, cathartic, symbolically rich.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the power of dancing in groups should not be under-estimated. Governments and churches fear it. Men fear it. Dancing invigorates our emotional centers, galvanizes our collective sensorium, and reminds us of our mutually embodied cultures. It is daring, rebellious, liberating. And now that we have a global community of women who have learned this choreography, we can have flash mobs at a moments notice. Look for us…
Postscript: Sadly, One Billion Rising events—both local and international in nature—received no coverage on the local evening news. Instead, the lead story was about yet another woman murdered by her domestic partner. This story they covered ad infinitum; the story of millions of women protesting violence against women received no mention whatsoever. I hope our efforts will make a difference…if not in the US, then maybe elsewhere.
* Break the Chain Lyrics by Tena Clark; Music by Tena Clark and Tim Heintz